ADS4: Super Models & Supporting Actors
The world we live in is a model. Or, at the very least, is controlled by models – political models, economical models, mathematical models, theoretical models, business models. From early computer simulations performed as part of the Manhattan Project, to the significance of climate modelling for political processes, we are basing our decisions on a series of numerical models. As such, the world itself can be considered a sort of super model. It is neither ideal nor the best of all possible worlds, but it is as changeable as any model. This is a condition created by humans, but only partly controlled by them. As the real and the virtual, the seen and the unseen, begin to merge we must look frankly at the technologies that are transforming the concrete reality of social civilisation into abstractions – figures, algorithms, financial ferocity and the accumulation of nothing. Only through striving to understand and adapt the model can we be more than merely supporting actors playing out simulations of real life.
The pursuit of new and alternative models seems particularly pertinent as we approach the end of 2015: Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles; Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content; and Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Social media and the sharing economy are transforming models of business. At the same time, open-source platforms and the nascent ‘maker movement’ are transforming manufacturing, the election of a new leader of the Labour Party has the potential to revolutionise British politics, and new universities are being established to challenge existing educational models. Some of these models are likely to fail, but they certainly have fecundity. Through our investigations we will identify our own individual models of thought, theory and practice.
From Model to Reality
Around 1989, television images 'started walking through screens, right into reality', suggests filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl. Data, sounds, images and even buildings are now routinely transitioning beyond screens into a different state of matter. They surpass the boundaries of data channels and manifest materially. 'They incarnate as riots or products, lens flares, high-rises, or pixelated tanks'. Theorist Benjamin Bratton discerns that contemporary digital platforms are now displacing, if not also replacing, traditional core functions of states, and demonstrating, for both good and ill, new spatial and temporal models of politics and publics, and have started occupying off-screen space. 'They invade cities, transforming spaces into sites, and reality into realty'. But by becoming real, most models are subsequently altered, compromised or ‘value engineered’. SketchUp models masquerade as real cities; ‘Spam Modernism’ proliferates indiscriminately.
In some senses the realised building is just another representation of a preceding model at a different scale; the final building is not necessarily the ultimate embodiment of the idea. Thanks to new forms of production and fabrication, the transition between digital visualisation and physical manifestation has never been easier. In the words of Steyerl, 'An upload can come down as a shitstorm.'
The Actors: Superheroes and Helpful Monsters
The models that we have created are populated by both human and non-human actors. The objects with which we surround ourselves have been assigned agency and now actively participate in our networked world. Our bathrooms scales communicate with our smartphones while our computers secretly share our private information. In order to navigate the world we need to better understand the actors that we share it with.
The use of the word ‘super’ in the title of this year’s theme is deliberately intended to evoke the idea of superheroes, as well as the super potential of models. Superheroes are a product of their historical origins: Superman was created in the 1930s as an antidote for Depression-era Americans, and Batman, the billionaire philanthropist, as a scion of the military industrial complex that was created, just as he was, at the beginning of World War II. However, according to Steyerl, human history came to a turning point in 1977 when the superhero died (or better said, disappeared). This is signified, for Steyerl, by the release of David Bowie’s single Heroes. In the video for the single, with its layering and duplication of Bowie’s image, the hero ceases being the subject and becomes an object: 'a thing, an image, a splendid fetish – a commodity soaked with desire'. Bowie had become a simulation that could be reproduced, multiplied and copied. Echoing Steyerl, theorist Franco Berardi suggests that around this time, 'the human race, misled by mock heroes made of deceptive electromagnetic substance, lost faith in the reality of the world and its pleasures, and started believing only in the infinite proliferation of images [...] Heroes faded and transmigrated from the world of physical life and historical passion to the world of visual simulation and nervous stimulation'.
This idea of simulation is increasingly relevant to architects and designers, who are spending more and more time in the simulated world of the CAD model, a world often substituted for the real one. At the heart of the history of the computer there has always been the dream that one day it would be possible to mathematically simulate the physical world well enough to generate graphics which, to our eyes, would be indistinguishable from the real world. As we approach the fulfilment of this techno-evolutionary dream, who will replace the superheroes as our conduit between this fabricated world and our own?
Our suggestion: Helpful Monsters – a deliberate misspelling of geneticist Richard Goldschmidt’s evolutionary theory of the ‘hopeful monster’, which, contrary to the age-old assertion that nature does not take leaps, posits that it is mutation that drives evolution. We are interested in the idea that the weird might work, that the strange might unlock some unknown potential, and that by embracing the monstrous we might be able to address the fears and anxieties of society that are too often absent from the considerations of architects. The most obvious culprits, according to Peter Carl in his essay Death and the Model, are Ledoux and Le Corbusier with their 'instrumental utopias whose intramundane salvation was to be achieved by making their societies behave like the geometry... as model societies'. Instead, we have to know that the designs we create will be misunderstood and broken. This is how we make them better.
Catastrophe and Other Models
Contrary to the destructive connotation of monsters, we will embrace the productive potential of catastrophe as we look towards the future. In 1925, the philosopher AN Whitehead stated in his Requisites for Social Progress that instability was necessary and unavoidable: 'It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties [...] The great ages have been unstable ages'. The words of Walter Benjamin also come to mind: 'The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things should continue ‘going well’, that is the catastrophe'.
So what of our present condition? Perhaps the best way to consider our current catastrophe is that it has neither happened, nor is it still ahead; it is being lived through. Things are always ending, but they never actually end. This is what Bruce Sterling, in his 2010 lecture, Atemporality for the Creative Artist, calls the ‘Internet meme ooze’. Sterling argues that if we want to survive and prosper we must accept that 'the citadel of the future has collapsed into the termite hills of the atemporal'. When we talk about the development of alternative models, we are not implying that ADS4 will set out in search of utopia. The goal instead will be to establish a critical position and a personal design process that acknowledges the complexity and contradictions of twenty-first century life. The alternative models that we will explore are intended to make us think. They should raise awareness, expose assumptions and spark debate about issues that affect contemporary society. Through this approach we hope to create designers that can find creative ways to insert themselves into areas where architects are not typically found.
World Building and Collaboration
As designers, we have the ability to construct realities for others to inhabit, to help shape cultural narratives and inform the way that we collectively think about the world — to imagine new models for living. ADS4 describes itself as a Critical Design Studio. By Critical Design, we mean design that poses questions rather than just attempts to provide solutions to problems. The critical questions that we pose often create new worlds upon their asking. Using strategies and techniques developed by other disciplines we build these worlds. We think that one of the most important and influential roles we have as critical designers is to talk about complex and difficult ideas and to generate debate. And this is what our new worlds allow us to do – to challenge current preconceptions and to test new ideas. By making possible futures seem familiar we hope to allow people to decide for themselves what a preferable future would be.
According to Steyerl, 'one cannot understand reality without understanding cinema, photography, 3D modelling, animation, or other forms of moving or still image'. She believes that reality itself is post-produced and scripted and that, 'far from being opposites across an unbridgeable chasm', images, models and the real world are in many cases just versions of each other. So, to help us to build these worlds, ADS4 will be collaborating with Squint/Opera – a creative agency that produces films and animations, visualisations and exhibition material. Together we will experiment with film genres and narratives as an instrument for both research and design, as well as a tool for representation and communication. How might architecture and urbanism be approached differently through the lens of film narratives such as the prequel, sequel, origin story or counterfactual history?
The Seven Districts (A Future History)
In 2016, London celebrates 160 years of organisation by postal district. Devised by Sir Rowland Hill in 1856, the subdivision of London into separate postal districts was a necessary response to rapid population growth and the dire need to accelerate communication in a city that was still largely medieval in structure.
The ten original districts were denoted by their compass point – EC (Eastern Central), WC (Western Central), and then NW, N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, and W – were contained within a circle of 12 miles radius from central London. The year 1886 saw the abolition of two of these districts – NE and S – deemed unviable by surveyor Anthony Trollope.
In the years that followed, numerous attempts were made to eliminate the remaining nuances of London’s incongruent character in a drive for greater efficiency: the consolidation of disparate private transport networks around 1902, the introduction of town planning legislation in 1909 and the creation of the 32 London Boroughs in 1965 to name but a few. As the speed of communication continues to increase exponentially and the ‘Smart’ city becomes a credible possibility, our dream of ultimate efficiency appears close to fulfilment.
However, in 2008 our global civilisation reached a pretty historic threshold: we became a minority online. The Internet of People gave way to the Internet of Things. Today there are at least two other devices connected to the internet for every human being’s personal device; by 2020 we will be hopelessly outnumbered – some 50 billion networked objects will prowl the reaches of cyberspace with just a few billion humans.
Unconcerned by the petty
politics and territoriality of local authorities, these non-human citizens
understand London as just part of
‘the grid’, translating GPS signals into
(UTM) coordinates. With AI and machine learning increasingly influencing new
models of both politics and publics, the notion of the ‘local authorities’
all but redundant by 2025. As London’s anthropocentric organisation
dissolves, the outnumbered human citizens mourn the loss of their local identity.
London’s human population once again redraws itself through its cardinal
points. The newly reestablished Seven Districts once again define life in the
Taught by Nicola Koller and Tom Greenall